OBAMA MAKES SURPRISE VISIT TO IRAQ

By STEVEN LEE MYERS

BAGHDAD — President Obama made an unannounced trip to Baghdad on Tuesday, punctuating his week-long overseas trip with a stop to talk to American troops and Iraqi leaders.

Air Force One landed at Baghdad International Airport under heavy security at 4:42 p.m. in the afternoon; military officials shut down the airport and roads into the capital were deserted.

Aboard the plane, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that Mr. Obama decided to make the trip to Iraq because he was nearby, making a state visit to Turkey, and because he wanted to show his appreciation of the troops.

“Our men and women who are in harm’s way, either in Iraq or Afghanistan, deserve our utmost respect and appreciation,” Mr. Gibbs said.

He said that Mr. Obama had planned to take a helicopter from the airport into the city to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, but that poor weather conditions meant that they would instead likely only talk by telephone.

Suspicions were high that Mr. Obama would go to either Afghanistan or Iraq at the end of his trip, but White House officials kept the plans under a tight lock. For Mr. Obama, the heightened secrecy reflected the leap he has taken from Senator to President; last July, when he was last in Iraq, that visit was announced well before he arrived.

In February, Mr. Obama announced an Iraq troop drawdown that would leave the bulk of American forces in place until early next year, while some combat units would remain in place in new roles even beyond a declared August 2010 target for withdrawal.

The plan would maintain relatively high troop levels through Iraq’s parliamentary elections, to be held in December, before beginning in earnest to meet the August 2010 target for removing combat forces.

Speaking to university students in Istanbul on Tuesday before he left for Baghdad, Mr. Obama said that he opposed the Iraq War in 2003, and reminded the group that he had announced plans for withdrawal. But once he became president, he said, he had to make sure that the withdrawal was carefully staged.

“I have a responsibility to make sure that as we bring troops out, that we do so in a careful enough way that we don’t see a complete collapse into violence,” Mr. Obama said. “So some people might say, wait, I thought you were opposed to the war, why don’t you just get them all out right away? Well, just because I was opposed at the outset it doesn’t’ mean that I don’t have now responsibilities to make sure that we do things in a responsible fashion.”

His remarks came in answer to a question from a student who asked him if he was more like President Bush in substance than he liked to admit.

“Moving the ship of state is a slow process,” Mr. Obama said. “States are like big tankers. They’re not like speedboats.”

See Related: OBAMA’S SURPRISE TRIP TO IRAQ – WAS THIS TRIP WORTH IT?

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